Biodiversity- far behind corporate climate change initiatives

It’s International Biodiversity Day today and it might seem like yet another symbolic initiative where you can show pictures of bees in your feed and appear to do good. But Biodiversity deserves better. Most of us tend to forget that on a global scale, at least according to the planetary boundaries and other researchers, biodiversity is a more acute issue than climate change.

On a corporate level, biodiversity is still an underdeveloped area of sustainability. Sectors with a direct and large impact on biodiversity (such as forestry and agriculture) are more advanced in the area than companies with an indirect impact, according to a recent report by IVL on behalf of the Swedish EPA. One of the reasons biodiversity work is underdeveloped is because there is no established standard for calculating impact and setting quantitative goals for biodiversity. On the climate side, Greenhouse Gas Protocol may be imperfect but it has leveled the playing field among companies and makes sure that climate impact is calculated in a standardized fashion.

As the authors of the report note, biodiversity is often governed using certifications. I would say that organic certification is the most common way companies govern biodiversity. I’m currently researching grocery and food companies and in this sector there are often targets for share of organic produce, for example that 10% of sales should be organic. As we know, organic certifications benefit biodiversity since pesticides is a threat to biodiversity. Sadly, the share of organic food sold in Sweden is currently declining.

However, biodiversity is much more than pesticides. It is of course also related to pollution more generally, such as water pollution. Perhaps less well known, and as The UN emphasizes, it is also about genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is one key measure used by the planetary boundaries framework. It means that monocultures and using only certain breeds on a large scale is not very beneficial for biodiversity. It also makes systems less resilient because if one pest that likes this particular species finds it, it can threaten the whole harvest. I have rarely seen this discussed in corporate sustainability reports. And as customers we rarely get information of the kind of breed we consume (probably Ross or Cobb in terms of chicken) so we may not be aware of the very limited biodiversity in what we consume.

To end, I want to highlight some positive examples I have come across. Plockhugget is a Swedish company that promotes more biodiverse forests through its business. If you buy a phone case from Swedish startup Bark, you may get wood from Plockhugget and you also get information on the specific type of wood used for your case and where it grew etc. I just bought a phone case made from wood that grew on Kungliga Djurgården, a large park close to were I live in Stockholm. It doesn’t get more local than that and no monocultures were involved. The tree no doubt had a good life too.

Buying food at the farmers market is another way to support biodiversity. Small scale farming has, according to a recent study by researchers at SLU, better biodiversity effects than large scale farming. If you don’t have time to visit the farmers market, Gröna gårdar sells only grass fed beef (grazing is really good for biodiversity) from small to medium size farms via the internet. There may also be farms that do direct sales to customers in the city, I only yesterday bought eggs from Pekin Bantam hens via Franzéns Charkuterier (on the picture) for example. Franzéns also have Linderöd pigs, another old breed you won’t find in conventional food chains. Supporting such small businesses, who don’t work with the mainstream breeds optimized for large scale production, supports genetic variety.

Beautiful Pekin Bantam eggs you won’t find in the grocery store

Another promising initiative is Crowdfarming. They support direct sales between farmers and customers within Europe. When you buy food via Crowdfarming you can see what variety you buy (the common Hass avocado or the less common Reed variety for example) and whether the farm that cultivated it is small, medium or large and other sustainability initiatives at this farm. Crowdfarming also educates its customers on the types of varieties that exist and when their proper season starts etc.

Obviously, biodiversity is not only an issue for forestry or agriculture. However, I have come across fewer good examples from other industries. If you know of other good examples, please let me know in the comments. I still have much to learn in regards to biodiversity. There is still limited research within business studies on this issue too.

Wish you all a good International Biodiversity Day

The climate impact of knitting

As readers of this blog might know, I knit, sew and occasionally weave and embroider. I love textile handicrafts. I think the love stems from gaining understanding of how something is made, the self-confidence you get from mastering a skill and the joy of being able to customize your wardrobe. But, as other sustainability minded makers, I have been conscious of the environmental footprint of my handicraft practices. After all, you use materials that have an environmental footprint in your handicraft practice and you sometimes tend to overproduce. You occasionally make things you do not like as much as you thought and, more frequently, you make things that you love but, truthfully, do not really need. When summarizing my slow fashion year, I have recurrently told myself that I need to limit my making. Being a slow maker is good, to produce less is a constant ambition.

Lately, I have reconsidered this bad conscious for engaging in handicrafts. A little more than a month ago I spoke on Swedish radio about the climate impact of fashion and had yet again a reason to look into the carbon footprint of fashion production. I was yet again reminded that textile fibers is only a very small part of the fashion carbon footprint. Instead, it is the (fossil) fuels in the textile and clothing production that stand for the majority of the carbon footprint (60 %). Finally, I realised that my knitting practice in fact avoids a big part of this carbon footprint . Indeed, my arm and hand muscles, doing the knitting, are very much fossil free. My hand knitting is pure renewable energy, sourced from the foods I consume. Sure in the process I emit some carbon dioxide, but I would do so anyway, whether knitting or not.

Knitters, at least the sustainably minded ones, tend to worry about the fibers, i.e. the yarn. We avoid yarn made from fossil fuels, such as nylon or acrylic yarns. We do the best we can to buy as sustainable yarn as we can find and afford. I try to only buy organic, such as Gots certified, yarn or yarn directly from the farm. Still, we worry about the environmental footprint.

As for worrying about the fibers, hand knitters mostly use wool. Wool is a side product of sheep farming in Sweden and is often burnt instead of used to make textiles, producing carbon dioxide when incinerated, which in turn negatively affects the climate. By using the wool, for example for knitting clothing, instead of incinerating we thus keep the carbon stored away in our clothes. Moreover, organic farming is more likely to have regenerative farming practices such as grazing and compost use (though of course not always!). Indeed, as I’ve blogged about, there have been successful attempts to make climate positive wool clothes. Wool, as a fiber, does not have to be bad for the climate. For knitters using cotton, there is climate beneficial cotton too.

Looking at climate calculations, textile fibre production is still only 16 % of the textile’s climate impact. See for example climate calculations for Swedish textiles by Sandin et al. (2019) in the diagram. These numbers also include climate unfriendly fibers that we avoid, such as plastic fibers from fossil fuels. This report does not, however, include wool fibers which are most commonly use by hand knitters, but cotton is included,

This diagram can still tell us something about the climate impact of textiles generally. For example that the big carbon footprint is in the fabric (14 %) and clothes production (15,6 %), which hand knitters remove by doing this part ourselves. That is to say that by hand knitting, you remove almost a third of the item’s carbon footprint. Well done knitter.

Thus if we choose climate friendly fibers, based on regenerative farming practice, hand knitters mostly need to worry about the processing of yarns (10 %) and dyeing of the yarn (23 %). This climate footprint is largely an effect of the energy mix in the factories or country of production producing the yarn and doing the dyeing. While the organic Gots certification encourages the use of renewable energy, it does not require it. Hence, the energy mix in the country of production plays a key role (33 %) for the carbon footprint. Imported organic or Gots certified yarns, thus, do not automatically have a low carbon footprint. It depends on where they are imported from and the energy mix used in the factories. Ideally, we want to avoid countries with coal and a large proportion of fossil fuels. In this context, Swedish spun yarn is likely to turn out well in any comparison, considering that we have hardly any fossil fuels in the Swedish energy mix.

Suddenly, the last sweater I knitted sounds quite environmentally friendly: knitted by hand out of undyed organic Swedish wool yarn, spun in Sweden by Stenkyrka Ullspinneri on Gotland. If I apply some of what I have learnt about regenerative farming and the climate impact of the fashion industry, my hand knitted sweater sounds even better. If the carbon stored in the fibers and the grazed lands surpass the carbon released in the production, my grey wool Gotland wool sweater might even be climate positive. Since the Swedish energy mix is almost fossil fuel free (it consists of mainly nuclear and hydropower), it could be.

To summarise, and as a little check list for us climate conscious hand knitters, we should consider choosing (1) climate friendly fibers for example from regenerative farming, (2) undyed yarn or yarn dyed using renewable energy, (3) yarn spun/processed using renewable energy. If we do so, we might in fact do the climate a service with our hand knitting practice.

Considering that Greta Thunberg, according to Vogue Scandinavia, is a knitter, I guess we should have known all along that hand knitting is good for the climate! 😉

References:

Sandin, Gustav & Roos, Sandra & Spak, Björn & Zamani, Bahareh & Peters, Greg. (2019). Environmental assessment of Swedish clothing consumption – six garments, sustainable futures. 10.13140/RG.2.2.30502.27205.

Why textile recycling is not the answer to reducing the climate impact of fashion

The fashion industry has a big climate impact. As a potential way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, there are a lot of ongoing initiatives aiming to recycle textile fibers. However, if you study the fashion brands’ carbon accounting closely, you see that virgin textile fibers, which recycling aims to replace, only account for around 10% of the total carbon footprint. This means that virgin fibers have a minor climate impact. Instead, the main impact is fossil fuels used in the textile factories that produce our clothes. You can argue that it is important to address the total carbon footprint, including virgin fibers, and I would agree. However, since textile recycling also has a carbon footprint of its own, the gain from recycling fibers is even less than the 10%. Indeed, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency found that for example chemical recycling of cotton has a worse carbon footprint than incineration of used cotton fibers. I raised this issue in an article in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on the topic of textile recycling and the fashion industry’s climate impact earlier this year.

Needless to say, there may be other environmental gains by recycling textile fibers. By recycling fibers the land used to grow textiles can be used to grow for example food. The water use and biodiversity issue of pesticide use when growing cotton can also be an argument for recycling the fibers. But biodiversity and pesticides can also be an argument to switch to organic practices or, as will discuss here, regenerative agriculture.

An issue that is often overlooked in the fashion and climate debate is that growing fibers such as cotton can be done in a way to sequester carbon dioxide from the air in the soil and fibers. Many of you have probably heard the term regenerative agriculture. It’s a way to use agricultural practices to reverse climate change, or in less bombastic terms, sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An early example of this, which made me aware of the issue, was the collaboration between American non-profit Fibershed and company The North Face in producing a climate beneficial wool hat. They argue that producing the wool hat had a net positive impact on the climate, i.e. it sequestered more climate gases from the atmosphere than it released. In this case, it was sheep that sequestered more carbon dioxide than they released and in the meantime produced wool for clothing. The North Face has since expanded their climate positive range but seems to be sticking to wool.

In Sweden, a group of fashion companies are looking to use Swedish wool for clothing. Although this wool might not have been farmed using regenerative agricultural practices, it is most likely still a gain for the climate as most Swedish wool is otherwise burned, releasing carbon dioxide. Moreover, many technical garments are nowadays made out of plastic fibers, from fossil fuels, and if existing wool can replace these fibers, it’s a gain for the environment.

However, it is not only wool that can sequester carbon dioxide. Fibershed and farmer Sally Fox shows that also textile fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen have this potential. Lately, luxury fashion has learned about regenerative agriculture and even started sourcing regenerative rubber. In my opinion, such regenerative agriculture appears more promising than recycling cotton, as recycling has a carbon footprint of its own and results in lower quality fibers. Of course, we can question the greenhouse gas calculations. There is indeed an ongoing debate as to when and how you can use the term climate positive but certifications are being developed. Fibershed is working with researchers to develop their calculations. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices as a means to slow climate change has generated research interest more generally .

Regenerative or climate positive fibers are likely to be more expensive than current conventional fibers. Considering current overconsumption of textiles, buying less and of better quality, keeping the items for longer should be possible for many of us. It may not be everyones’ cup of tea, but at least the more wealthy part of the world could afford to buy less and, when we do buy clothing, go for climate positive fibers. In addition, we need to keep our clothing longer as the easiest way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint is to buy less and reuse our items more.

Is renting clothes more environmentally friendly?

H&M started renting services in 2019, caption from article in Forbes

It is often said that you should lease, rent, commercially share or pool things instead of owning them and that this is more circular. It’s called Product-Service-Systems (PSS) and the idea is that this should keep products in use and thereby lower their environmental footprint. Consumers are told to buy a function or access instead of a product. Products are this way turned into services.

A lot of research money, both corporate and public, is put into realizing these ideas in practice. The problem, as I have written about before, is that research already indicates that it is not as simple. As Tukker (2004) writes, the idea that PSS will automatically result in an environmental-economic win-win situation is a myth. In the following, I list some reasons why leasing, renting and pooling might not be more environmentally friendly than owning.

The first issue is transport. When you switch products, for example when participating in a fashion library, you need transport to pick up the new rented items and this transport and its environmental impact may off-set any benefit. Zamani et al (2017) included customer transport into their life-cycle analysis and showed that for clothing libraries transport has a higher climate impact than for example washing. The authors conclude that few customers and keeping the clothing for a long time was the most environmentally friendly. However, this is rarely the idea with such libraries or renting services.

One reason why for example renting is supposed to reduce environmental impact is because access to the product is complicated, which should reduce its use (Tukker, 2004). Renting, leasing and pooling models are most likely to have a positive environmental impact if they reduce consumption (Tunn et al. 2019). Thus because you have to take the detour and arrive within the fashion library’s opening hours you will use the service less and rent fewer new clothes. If companies knew this, however, they might be less inclined to try a PSS model. Moreover, there are many ways, apart from PSS models, to discourage from consumption.

An issue with the above argument, that renting should decrease consumption, is the rebound effect. This means that any leased, shared or rented item has to replace something you would otherwise buy to have a positive environmental impact. In the case of fashion, there is a significant risk that customers both buy what they want and then on top rent clothes or subscribe to a fashion library. Maybe you buy the basic and classic items as you have always done but then also start to rent the fun and trendy items that you never would have bought. In such cases, the rented items increase fashion consumption instead of replacing existing consumption. This is simply an increased environmental impact, there are no savings here.

There is also a risk that you treat the rented or shared items less carefully since they are not yours. Michelini et al. (2017) and Tukker (2004) argue that use-oriented business models can hinder the products from circulating longer due to careless use by the users. In such cases, less responsible user behavior increases environmental impact. The e-scooters on town are a prime example of such reckless treatment of rented products. If users paid the full price and owned the scooter, they might treat it more carefully.

The products best suited for leasing and rental are durable ones, usually sold at high prices, which also makes leasing or renting more appealing to customers who might lack the funds to buy the product (Lacy & Rutqvist, 2015). The issue here is that second hand markets have traditionally been a solution for such situations. Many of us already buy durable, rarely used and pricey items second hand and then, when we don’t need them, pass them on to someone else through second hand markets.

Susanna Alexius och Staffan Furusten addressed this issue well in a recent article in Organisation & Samhälle . Just as second hand markets, sharing or pooling is nothing new. What’s new in the sharing/circular economy debate is that this sharing and pooling should be commercialized. While traditionally you maybe shared clothes, cars, summer houses or tools with friends and acquaintances, what’s new is that you should share your belongings with strangers and that a commercial actor should earn a share every time you do so. And even this is not entirely new, holiday rentals have worked this way for a long time.

In the circular economy and PSS debate, the idea is that the producer should keep ownership of products and sell them to the customer as a service. This provides the producer with incentives to produce long lived, durable and repairable products (although this is yet be proven in practice). The risk here, as Alexius and Furusten note, is that companies will own even more and their customers less. Traditionally, owning has been a form of capital. And isn’t the sharing economy precisely evidence that owning is capital when you can easily rent your house and earn a profit. Thus ownership is in fact not all bad and – in the case of sharing, renting or pooling – someone will own the product that is to be shared.

As I see it, the risk here is that we are simply commercializing something that would take place anyway – the sharing of products we rarely or hardly use. And, at the end of the day, if you cannot recycle the product into new products, is it really circular anyway? In my opinion we should put more focus on turning waste into new products and less attention to the ownership issue.

Last spring, I reviewed a student thesis dealing with the issues of renting and leasing specifically clothing. Frida Oscarson studied the case of technical garments and interviewed representatives within the industry. To learn about what the industry thinks, you can read her findings here.

References

Lacy, P & Rutqvist, J., (2015) Waste to wealth: the circular economy advantage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michelini, G., Moraes, R., Cunha, R., Costa, J. & Ometto A., (2017) From linear to circular economy: PSS conducting the transition, Procedia CIRP, vol. 64, pp. 2-6 

Tukker, A., (2004) Eight types of product–service system: eight ways to sustainability? Experiences from SusProNet. Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 13 (4), pp. 246-260. 

Tunn, V. S. C., Bocken, N. M. P., van den Hende, E. A. & Schoormans, J. P. L., (2019) Business models for sustainable consumption in the circular economy: An expert study. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 212, pp. 324-333.

Zamani, B., Sandin, G. and Peters, G., (2017) Life cycle assessment of clothing libraries: can collaborative consumption reduce the environmental impact of fast fashion?. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 162, pp. 1368-1375. 

Can sustainability reports regulate companies’ conduct?

Browsing articles in the research journal AAAJ the other day, I noticed that my own article, published over a year ago, was on their list of ‘most read in the past 7 days’. This fact made my week. It is more than great when your research matters to the research community, however, sometimes there are learning point for non-academic society too. Rereading the paper, I do think there are points in the paper that could be interesting for non-researchers as well. Hence this blog post.

In recent years, it has become mandatory for large companies to produce a sustainability report each year. In Sweden, it became mandatory because of an EU directive. The idea behind this kind of regulation is that the company’s sustainability report will inform its stakeholders- such as customers, local community, employees and investors- about what the company does in relation to sustainability issues such as climate change, human rights, anti-corruption etc. The stakeholders can then use this information, if they are unhappy with what the company does, to exert pressure on the company. The stakeholders can thus hold the company accountable for its actions. In this way, corporate conduct is regulated; the company will want to change its corporate conduct because of the stakeholder pressure. It is called ‘civil regulation’.

Interestingly, there are a number of cases in the research literature, specifically studying sustainability reporting, where civil regulation does not work as planned. There are cases of stakeholders, for example NGOs, that receive the sustainability reports and read them but do not feel equipped to exert pressure on the company. The company reports and the stakeholders receive it, but there is no civil regulation taking place. The company can continue with business as usual.

Reviewing these cases of ‘failed’ civil regulation, I try to explain why the reported information may not be enough to produce such civil regulation. My article argues that we, in these cases, tend to overestimate the ‘power’ of information and confuse it with knowledge. I use the example of ESG investor analysts, i.e. analysts that focus on how companies handle sustainability issues such as energy consumption, pollution, human rights etc. These investors do attempt to hold companies accountable for their unacceptable sustainability performance, a practice the industry calls ‘company engagement’. In my study I find that when the analysts do so, not all information is alike and the analysts rely on several other types of information, for example from consultants and media, plus many other types of resources such as theories, calculations etc. to show that they know what the company does and how it should change its practices.

Consequently, I argue that we need to carefully distinguish between information and knowledge. Information, such as sustainability reports, may indeed contribute to knowledge but is rarely enough on its own to hold the company accountable. We cannot assume that if someone has information about someone’s actions s/he will be able to hold this person accountable. What kind of information we hold matters: where it comes from, if it contradicts or confirms other accounts. It matters how it is used, together with other resources or to disprove other statements. Moreover, in some cases other resources other than information, for example theories, helped the analysts to hold the company accountable.

This study does not, however, show that sustainability reports are not useful for regulating companies’ conduct. It just illustrates that information in the form of a sustainability report is not enough on its own. If we construct this kind of reporting-based civil regulation, like the EU-directive, we should not overestimate the power of a single source of information. In this context, empirical studies such as the one in AAAJ can inform us about the role the reported sustainability information plays in practice.

Companies and science: some take aways from the Monsanto trial

US multinational Monsanto has been involved in countless trials for its products and most recently its popular weed killer Roundup. The lateste trial, the Johnson cancer case, concerns a school groundkeeper and was the first to take the weed killer Roundup to trial. The trial got a lot of publicity, especially after Johnson famously won. Supposedly, this ‘win’ opens up for further trials on cancer and Roundup and is thus bad news for Monsanto. It is also bad news for German pharmaceutical company Bayer, that just recently acquired Monsanto. 

Aside from the fact that this widely used weed killer, Roundup, might cause cancer, the case is interesting because it reveals how Monsanto was actively working to shape the science around its product. During the trial, letters were released that revealed many examples of such questionable science-business practices. As one example, Monsanto appears to have been involved in ghost writing i.e. that the company writes text and then asks academics put their name, as authors, on it. As one of the revealed examples, Stanford researcher Mr Henry I. Miller wrote a piece on Forbes’s website in 2015, based on a Monsanto draft and failed to mention any involvement by Monsanto thereby violating Forbes policy for authors. The Forbes piece in question was written in response to the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, that had just labeled glyphosate (ingredient in Roundup) a probable carcinogen. 

Another incident concerns the retraction of research that is unfavorable for the company. In 2013, while he was still editor of the journal ‘Food and Chemical Toxicology’, Mr. Hayes retracted a key study damaging to Monsanto that found that Roundup, and genetically modified corn, could cause cancer and early death in rats. Later, it surfaced that Mr Hayes had had a contractual relationship with Monsanto. This piece in the NYT covers most of the story. This article by science journalist Paul Thacker is also worth while.

What can we learn from this in terms of business and sustainability? Certain companies will inevitably have a strong interest in research, for example to show that their products are safe and effective. In my opinion, the fine line between science, corporate interests and corruption is a key business ethics issue for these companies that the management needs to handle. If not, when such business practices fail, it may show up as cases of unethical business practices, corruption or in the worst case, as for Monsanto, as legal cases. The EU regulation on non-financial reporting requires large companies to report on their anti-corruption and anti-bribery policies and practices. For companies with a large stake in science, how to avoid this kind of unethical incidents should be accounted for in this section.

Moreover, as a take away for us as researchers, we cannot be naive regarding the very strong incentives certain companies may have to meddle with science. While uncovering such cases may feed the publics distrust in science and media, e.g. the fake news debate, not uncovering biased or in worst cases incorrect research may risk the whole scientific system as such.

Regarding questionable retractions of research papers, to my mind full transparency is to not actually retract a paper but to let it remain with proper commentary for example as to why the research findings or methods are questionable. Paper retractions may otherwise, if we are not very careful, become a tool for censorship.

Steering businesses towards a circular economy

As I have previously blogged about, the students in my master course ‘measuring sustainability’ at NHH have analysed and proposed indicators that H&M and other fashion companies can use to steer their business towards a circular economy. We are very thankful to H&M and sustainability manager Luisa Book for collaborating with us on this case. The topic is very much of the moment as an increasing number of companies, just like H&M, aim to become circular but then also need appropriate tools to help steer their operations in this direction.

Some of the indicators the students proposed, such as amount of recycled material out of total use of materials, are maybe not new but are crucial when a circular business is the target. Moreover, the number of times a material can be recycled needs to be monitored in order to make sure that recycling is not just a prolonging of a linear path (see Circular Flanders great illustration of this to the left). In an ideal world, materials can be recycled indefinitely.

The students also argued that it is key to keep track of collecting initiatives i.e. when brands collect used or discarded products. How much of what is sold returns to the company for recycling? Moreover, companies need to monitor what happens with collected garments- are they recycled into new garments or in fact only downcycled (used for other less valuable products)?

One reason materials cannot be recycled is because the materials are contaminated for example by chemicals that hinder recycling. The students here proposed to measure the use of such chemicals or substances. By monitoring, the company can also try to minimize such use. To know if the product is made with substances that might hinder recycling, you need proper information about what the garment is made of and how it is made. Here the students proposed that H&M could develop more elaborate tags with information about the item which could help the customer to take care of it and, eventually, facilitate the recycling of the garment.

Another point that is crucial to circular operations is to keep the materials in the processes. In the textile industry, a lot of fabric gets wasted and does not end up in any garment. Consequently, some students suggested to measure the amount of material that ends up in a garments in relation to total amount of materials used. Ideally, all materials used should end up in a garment. Similarly, the students also identified microplastics as a threat because it means that small amounts of plastic fibers continuously leave the circular flow and non-renewable materials are subsequently lost.

Another aspect commonly discussed in the context of circular economy is the slowing of the circle i.e. the prolonging of a product’s life span. Here the students reintroduced the idea of enabling users to repair their clothes, for example by making sure all items come with threads or buttons necessary for repair or providing repair services in stores. The company can track both the use of repair services and number of items that customers could repair themselves.

I hope that H&M and other companies will find the students work helpful. How to measure a circular business is really at the forefront of both practice and research. In fact, two research colleagues and I just last week got financing for a project on circular business practices by Vinnova. That the students managed this task so well and were able to develop these very helpful indicators show, to my mind, that we at University teach students useful and up to date skills. We educate students that can in fact contribute to and improve current business practices.

Three reasons you should choose environmentally friendly skincare products

Last time, I blogged about the Pink Ribbon and how we should discuss hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic substances in personal care products more. To my mind, there are three key reasons why we should consider going green in the cosmetics department.

First, our own personal health. As I mentioned in the blog post, there are many examples of ingredients affecting our health negatively, for example UV-filter in sunscreen may disrupts hormones. Parabens and breast cancer. There are too many examples here too mention in one post but basically, do not suppose that brands with a green image are truly green. To the opposite, brands such as Clinique, Body Shop and Bare Minerals have been shown to include for example PFOS in products. PFOS is a similar compound to PFAS, if you remember my post about the Dupont case. PFOS is also the chemical 3M was sued for using in Scotchgard. You don’t want this on your skin or in your bathroom at all.

The second reason is because of the environment. I recently reread Johan Rockström and co’s Planetary Boundaries (2015) paper and they state in no uncertain terms that chemical pollution is one the nine key planetary boundaries we need to watch out for:

“The risks associated with the introduction of novel entities into the Earth system are exemplified by the release of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are very useful synthetic chemicals that were thought to be harmless but had unexpected, dramatic impacts on the stratospheric ozone layer. In effect, humanity is repeatedly running such global-scale experiments but not yet applying the insights from previous experience to new applications.”

They also discuss micro plastic pollution, again something commonly found in cosmetics and which I have written about before.  As another example, we know that sunscreen seeps into the water and affects corals reproduction. This is why they have forbidden certain sunscreens in Hawaii. In addition, many chemicals are made out of fossil fuels and thus a non-renewable source with effects on the climate. It is estimated that in 2030 the chemical industry will stand for 30% of the total oil production.

There is, to my mind, a naive belief sometimes among consumers that everything is thoroughly tried and tested before it can be used in products. To the opposite, in the paper the researchers write that we need better methods to find out if a substance is harmful before it becomes widely used.

The third reason to go green is social. There are many chemically sensitive individuals that cannot move freely in public spaces because we are constantly spreading chemicals they react to through our perfumes, fragrances and personal care products. Nail polish, hair spray and other evaporating products are, in fact, a form of significant air pollution, believe it or not. It’s called volatile organic compounds (VOC) and yes it’s in your cosmetics. That scent you smell is basically chemical pollution and for someone nearby it might trigger an asthma attack.

So how do you go green? Maybe the most environmentally friendly approach is DIY. These days there are web shops such as Organic Makers that provide all the basic safe ingredients you need. The Zero Waste Home book provides many basic tricks and recipes. But maybe you don’t want the fuss of making it yourself and maybe you like a nice packaging (although that’s less environmentally friendly). If so, there are tons of organic brands out there. I also use several of these, because sometimes that’s good enough.

Pink ribbon month and carcinogens in products

It’s October and breast cancer awareness month. And every year some of us wish that there would be a discussion about carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products instead of selling these products under the pink ribbon label. I can’t find a word on the Swedish site about carcinogenic substances. In contrast, I think we need to discuss this issue much more. Such a discussion would benefit the companies that face out harmful substances proactively, before regulation forces them to do so.

Because even in the EU we have carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances in products. Sometimes it’s because we just recently found out the substances were harmful, for example parabens in cosmetics involved in breast cancer. And, after we have found out,  regulating them takes several years, as in the case of phtalates. Other times the substances are already forbidden but are still used repeatedly by companies. Yet other substances, such as BPA, are forbidden through REACH regulation but still allowed in food packaging, such as take away cups, because these are not regulated by REACH  but by EFSA.

Overall, EU might do a better job than the US in regulating harmful substances but is still far from perfect. Sometimes the replacements are not necessarily better than the original substance, as these researchers discuss. Interestingly, the researchers found that people eating out are more exposed to the harmful substances because for example restaurants use packaging not allowed for individual customers.

What else can we do? Be careful about personal care products. Avoid packaging when possible. Here I see the zero waste movement as an inspiration. Using refillable mugs, you avoid the BPA in paper cups. Shopping at the farmers market, you get your vegetables in paper bags instead of individually wrapped plastic. And obviously, not buying new stuff, when you don’t really need to, is not only cheap but reduces your chemical exposure too.

The link between circular economy & sustainability- a case with H&M

This morning, I introduced the case we will be working on this autumn on my course at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH): managing business towards a circular economy and sustainability. The case is in partnership with H&M who is also a partner of the Ellen MacArthur circular economy initiative.

As I’ve written about before, I was not an early adopter of the circular economy. I do, however, teach circular economy as a trend in the sustainability area both at Örebro University and NHH. The more I reflect on the concept, the more of a convert I’ve become. So I thought I’d share some of my aha-moments about the circular economy and sustainability with you here.

First of all, what do we mean with sustainability? The established definition is from the UN Brundtland report (1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

As Kuhlman & Farrington (2010) (one of our key references in the NHH course) writes, this sustainability definition addresses the tension between mankind’s aspiration towards a better life on the one hand and the limitations imposed by nature on the other hand. This tension between social welfare and natural resources is more often than not ignored in the business debate on sustainability. We often pretend it does not exist. And of course, there are many win-win situations where environmental or social measures also bring down costs and/or increase income.  There are definitely low hanging fruit, efforts that are win-win or at least come at no cost.

However, there are cases where tension between social well-fare and environmental sustainability undoubtedly exists. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example. The industry argues that it provides tremendous social benefit by saving lives (or at least reducing suffering) but the environmental pollution, especially chemical and water pollution, is high, both at production  and consumption sites. Why do such tensions between social well-fare and natural resources occur?

Operating in a closed system

Some of you might have heard about the Planetary Boundaries. Professor Johan Rockström and co-authors defined nine environmental boundaries we should stay within to ensure a stable living environment (see picture, borrowed from the 2015 article). What this figure tells businesses is that we are operating in a closed system. If we mismanage certain environmental resources, such as biodiversity and chemical pollution, we cannot compensate for these in other ways. If we cross these, there is no functional living environment we can operate within.

 

Why a linear business model does not work in a closed system

Now the problem with a linear business model (which most businesses have and what we often teach students) is that it treats input to businesses (and its outputs) according to the value chain- the business uses certain input and through a number of processes produces some outputs. These inputs, resources, the business uses appear to just exist. The environment is there for us to use and not affected by our use. Likewise, outputs and externalities from our production  just go somewhere. However, as the 1990 chapter on circular economy by Pearce and Turner states, eventually the waste we produce will affect the availability of new resources. And the accumulated waste affects our well-being too. The fact that business operates in a closed system has to be taken into account. Certainly for global businesses.

Now from the planetary boundaries perspective, the best would of course be to minimize consumption and for us to produce less in order to spare the environment and stay within the boundaries. This is in line with the minimalism and anti-consumerism movement. If we consume less, we do not need to produce so much. We can share, mend and repurpose etc. This is admirable and has a place, especially in societies with overconsumption. It is my approach to my own wardrobe situation. However, at this point in the debate, someone will throw in the argument that we cannot deny developing countries the same social benefits we have allowed ourselves. If we have been flying for decades, why shouldn’t they be able to?

Kate Raworth, with a background at Oxfam, illustrated this pedagogically in her ‘Doughnut Economics‘. It is a fact that there are large groups of people that are not getting their basic needs met. And to achieve progress on this point will in many cases require use of natural resources. Here, the tension between the social development and the availability of natural resources the Brundtland report sought to address is very clear.

Consequently, Raworth put those basic social needs into Rockström’s figure, in the middle, to illustrate that we want to maximize the social well-fare of people while at the same time staying within the planetary boundaries. We want to operate, she argues, within the green ‘doughnut’ formation in the figure.

Sustainability is getting the maximum social value while staying within the planetary boundaries

Working along the lines of minimizing and restricting consumption can, at least in some cases, thus deny us social value. Similarly, what many sustainability-minded businesses do is to try to minimize the waste and externalities from production. To reduce the ‘shadow’ of business, make them ‘tread lightly’ on the environment. There are many impressive initiatives with zero waste factories and water reduction regimes. These are all good, no doubt about it. We need these kinds of initiatives. However, the circular economy further adds that ‘waste’ should not simply be removed but could also become a resource for us to use. It’s a fact that we need some amount of production and that it uses resources and that there will be some amount of waste. What can we do with the remaining waste? How can we turn it into resources?

As this post is long enough, I will simply have to write about the challenges with making waste into circular resources in a follow up post. Still, I hope you see, like I do, why there is a case for circular business in a sustainable society. And I’m so excited about our case with H&M and what the students will come up with.